Philip Pan, for years my favorite correspondent in Beijing (he left a few months ago), has written a devastating article about a letter written by a doctor who saw with his own eyes the victims of the massacre on the streets of Beijing n June 4, 1989 and described in detail the carnage he witnessed in the emergency room that night. [Correction – this is not actually an article but an excerpt of Pan’s new book Out of Mao’s Shadow that I’ve been trying to buy.]
On page after page, over a period of months, Jiang poured his heart into the letter. Every spring, as the anniversary of the massacre approached, the party became nervous and mobilized to prevent any attempt to memorialize the victims. But people had not forgotten, Jiang wrote. They had been bullied into silence, but, with each passing year, their anger and frustration grew. Jiang urged the new leaders to take a new approach. They should admit the party was wrong to send troops into the square and order them to fire on unarmed civilians. They should address the pain of those who lost their loved ones in the massacre and acknowledge, at long last, that the protesters were not “thugs” or “counter-revolutionaries” but patriots calling for a better and more honest government..
As Pan explains, this is no ordinary whistleblower, but one with unique credibility – none other than Jiang Yanyong, the very same doctor who wrote the letter to Time magazine in 2003 blowing the lid off the SARS cover-up. Needless to say, for his efforts to save lives he was “eased into retirement,” and later harassed and detained.
“Haunting” was the word that kept coming to mind as I read the final paragraphs of this beautiful story.
The government never charged Jiang with a crime, and he was finally released from house arrest in March 2005. Afterward, though, he disappeared from public view. When I last visited him, he turned up the volume on his television set because he believed his apartment might be bugged, and he whispered that he was trying to avoid provoking the government. He said he still wanted to visit his daughter and grandson in California, and he believed that, if he behaved, the authorities would give him permission to go. As I listened to him speak, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment. The state had been unable to break Jiang, but it had succeeded in silencing him.
After I left his apartment, though, I decided it was unfair to expect the elderly doctor to continue standing up to the party. He had already achieved more than most and paid a price for it. I doubted the government would ever let him visit his daughter and grandson, but how could anyone expect him to give up that hope? There was only so much one man could do, and only so much a nation could ask of him.
There’s much more to this story; I never realized how difficult a life the SARS whistleblower had endured, and how he retained his integrity even through the horrors of the Mao years, and remained dedicated to his country (not the party) to the point of endangering his own safety. It is inspiring, and ultimately very sad. Please read the article, bookmark it and pass it to your friends.
When I read articles like this, I realize how important it is that traditional media don’t die out. There is nothing like great reporting, something Pan has consistently delivered, shocking us with the truths he uncovers and telling them in a dispassionate tone that nevertheless haunts us even years after reading them. The way this story haunts me even today.
John Pomfret set the bar high for Pan, his replacement, and I can’t imagine how the Post will ever find anyone who can fill Pan’s shoes. As good as they come.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.